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India: the road into Old Delhi

When I think back on that first taxi ride in India, it seemed to me, from the time it took, that Indira Gandhi Airport must have been about fifty miles from Old Delhi where the hotel was. Unless I was so jet-lagged and disorientated by the sub-continent that I had lost all sense of time, and I don’t think I had, then all I can conclude is that the driver took us a very long way round… all the better for his friend up front to give us some old chat.

After riding shotgun in our taxi for an extended period, the uninvited passenger gathered that not only was the taxi prepaid, so was our hotel. Although he gave every indication of being utterly convinced of his powers of persuasion, even he baulked at attempting to make some dumb tourists pay for another hotel, with no hope of refund from the one that was booked and paid for. The car stopped and he got out by the side of the road. I did not see how he indicated to the driver that enough was enough; perhaps the driver figured it out.

Shortly after his sudden departure, the front passenger door flew open. We stopped to close it. The driver banged it shut hard. Then he stood poking it with an expression of concern. My travelling companion took the opportunity to take up position in the front seat, alongside the driver. I suddenly felt conspicuous on my own in the back: a white memsahib lodged in solitary splendour on tiger-striped velour upholstery. I was told later that the front seat gave a good view of the road – from the gaping hole in the foot well.

Like magic, once the hard salesman was gone, we were into Delhi properly. Perhaps we had just been driven around and around the paddy fields and water buffalo until we caved in. If so, we had passed the first test. We reached another busy intersection and stop. I stared out of the windows. In front, a man was slowly rolling a ten foot concrete post across the crossroads, apparently unperturbed amidst the flow of other vehicles. The horn chorus has reached a pitch of communication frenzy and I guess a good proportion is directed at the man rolling the post. Behind us, the taxi has a bunch of plastic purple grapes dangling where the air freshener normally hangs. Traffic was being nominally directed by a traffic policeman in brown uniform. These officials do not object when our taxi dives past slower traffic, like rickshaws, by steering a path round them, directly into oncoming traffic. Myself, I am not so keen.

courtesy of BBC images

The Taxi to Delhi

As the pre-paid taxi, number 594, chuntered off in the general direction of India’s capital city, I noticed that we had acquired a solicitous ‘friend’ who had jumped in the front seat next to the driver. The friend was as voluble as the driver was silent. As we sat on the back seat, reupholstered in a thin velour with tiger stripe print, the man assaulted our ears with an endless stream of questions. How long was the visit? Where were we staying? What was our itinerary? Countries of origin? It was then impressed upon us the vital necessity of attending tourist information offices. I started to look out of the window…

Fields with cattle in, but not fields like in England. No fences and cows wander free here. Sacred beasts that they are for Hindus. A white horse, tethered perhaps. More cattle, lazing in a water hole. People hacking crops in the fields. More people beautifying what passes for a central reservation in the road – ornamental bowls on plinths, as yet empty. More people painting large stones white along the roadside. We pass a collection of empty baths in the central reservation. It’s like the main road into the city from the airport is in the process of being primped to make a good first impression. Perhaps the baths and bowls will be planted up in due course. It’s too late now, for me anyway, good first impressions or no; my return ticket isn’t for another three weeks.

We are out of the country now, and into the city proper. Traffic runs to three lanes in each direction: no road markings, lots of vehicular weaving and no indicators of the light-winking variety I am used to seeing. Here it is all communication of intent via vociferous horn honking. The cacophony is not confined to mere matters of indication. Drivers also use them to indicate other intentions, or recognition, also irritation and other things I was unable to define. Rickshaws, both the auto and pedal variety, vie for a rickshaw-shaped space amongst monster Tata trucks, mopeds, buses, handcarts, coaches, cars, bicycles and bullock carts. Some owners have decorated their vehicles with gaudy tinselly ornaments. I don’t know if this is for some recent festival, for luck, or a run-of-the-mill practice.

The taxi passes through a small settlement, not quite a slum. It is forced to slow down whilst the driver swerves round white cows ambling nonchalantly across the road. I see people living alongside dogs and pigs, piglets, children, goats. Washing is hung out to dry. We stop at some traffic lights and a woman with a bundle on her back approaches the taxi. I assume that the bundle is a baby, but I can’t be certain. She asks for money. I have thought about my approach to these requests for money in advance of the trip – tourists are cash cows. I understand this and have a strategy to give something every day. The car pulls away. My western conscience pricks me and the woman with the bundle is left empty-handed.

I know at the next stop the taxi makes, there will be another hand thrust forward. This is not going to be a straightforward trip.

Delhi Airport to Oberoi Maidens Hotel, Old Delhi 29 October 1998

At least I think it was 1998… funny how the old memory works, or not. If I was asked to write about this now, I would say that I remember the people at the airport, they were sort of stacked up behind a high wire fence – faces and hands pressed on the wire. Is that true? Well I remember it. But is it true? I don’t know – there was a metal wire fence, I was on one side, Indian people on the other. Then I remember the hotel room being enormous. The curtains were thick and kept the light and heat out. I was scared to leave the room, but not as scared as my companion who was more so. The room was in a 1970s green. It reminded my of my Nan and Grandad’s decor in Camberley, Surrey. Flying to India, to be reminded of your grandparents home in Everest Road. There’s a synchronicity in that that I can live with. Anyway, this is the start of the travel diary from that first trip to India.

Passing through the exit of the Indira Gandhi International airport carries a the sensation of being unavoidably decanted from a bottle. There is no turning back. Despite the sole poster advertising ‘Indiaaaah’ at the High Commission where I had collected my visa in London, there was no feeling of sliding into an instantly relaxed state. Not that I had expected this in any case, which was just as well.

The task in hand was to get a taxi. First you buy a ticket for a taxi from a kiosk inside the airport. The ticket is blue. Next you find the kiosk outside the airport with the yellow signage that says ‘Pre Paid Taxis’. The man in the outside kiosk takes your ticket and writes a number on it. Then he instructs us to find the taxi with the same number as that on the ticket from the rank of Ambassador cars parked just beyond a melee of people. As I looked for the right taxi, people pressed forwards, looking at the ticket and pointing directions. The numbers on the taxis themselves were not exactly obvious. I was thrust helpfully towards a man in a grey shirt and simultaneously noticed the number matching my ticket written in felt tip on what may once have been the fare meter, somehow attached to the bonnet of the car.

The taxi number was 594.

To be continued…